Legislation would restore septic tank inspections

OKEECHOBEE — Florida House Bill 85, filed Dec. 11 by Representative Will Robinson would require homeowners with septic tanks to have the tanks pumped out and inspected every five years.

The legislation would require the Florida Department of Health (DOH) to identify all onsite sewage treatment and disposal systems (septic tanks) in the state, including the location and operational condition of the systems, using information available from state and local data, by January 2021. The bill directs DOH to generate a database that includes the number of septic tanks in each county, as well as a statewide map of the systems.

Typical septic tank. Courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Effective July 1, 2022, septic tank owners would be required to have the systems inspected at least once every five years. The inspections will include a tank inspection, a drainfield inspection and a written assessment of the condition of the system. A pump out of the system is not required if documentation of a tank pump-out or permitted new installation, repair or modification of the system within the previous three years is provided.

The homeowners would be required to pay the cost of the inspection and the pump-out if one was required. The pump-out must be performed by a licensed septic tank contractor.

The bill requires anyone who sells a property that contains a septic tank to provide the buyer with a disclosure statement: “This property contains an onsite sewage treatment and disposal system, also known as a septic tank. A system that is not properly maintained is often a source of nutrients and fecal coliform bacteria in groundwater. A system has a lifespan of approximately 25 years if properly maintained and used. All system tanks should be pumped out every three to five years to prevent system failure. It is recommended that you request the latest inspection report and assessment of the system. If one does not exist, it is recommended that you request an inspection and assessment of the system.”

Mr. Robinson, a Republican, represents the 71st House District, which includes parts of Manatee and Sarasota counties. In filing the bill, he stated that voter concerns about harmful algal blooms were a key campaign issue in the 2018 election. A study by Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute pointed to faulty septic tanks as a major contributor to the excess nitrogen load that feeds harmful algal blooms.

At the Dec. 13 meeting of the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board, Melanie Peterson voiced support of septic-to-sewer projects and of the legislation to require inspections.

“I have been hopeful and pleased with how many local communities are stepping up and doing the septic-to-sewer conversion,” said SFWMD Governing Board Member Peterson. “If you really want to improve water quality now, that’s how you get it.

“Septic-to-sewer conversion will affect your local waterways right now,” she said.

“There was a bill filed this week by Representative Robinson that is going to require septic tank inspections every five years,” she said.

“There are areas that don’t have access to sewer. With these inspections, people can be proactive and understand if there is any kind of problem with their tank.

“I am confident that when people know there is a problem, they will fix it.

“I hope the people who are interested in water quality will get behind that bill,” she said.

SFWMD Governing Board Member Brandon Tucker also endorsed the septic tank inspection idea.

He added that as a Realtor he has no problem if the state requires inspections on septic tanks when a home is sold.

According to the Department of Environmental Protection, nationwide about 20 percent of American homes use septic tanks. In most states, septic tanks are used in rural areas where it is not cost effective to run sewer lines to remote homes. In Florida, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FEDEP), about 30 percent of all homes have septic tanks. Florida is home to 12 percent of all of the septic tanks in the United States. Unlike northern states where most homes with septic tanks are in rural areas surrounded by farmland, in Florida septic tanks can be found in urban coastal areas where development outpaced sewer line expansion or where developers opted to put in septic tanks to cut costs rather than pay the fees required for sewer line expansion and hookups.

FDEP estimates there are about 2.6 million homes in Florida with septic tanks. Many of these septic tanks are in environmentally-sensitive watersheds.

While manufacturers recommend septic tanks be pumped out and inspected every 1 to 5 years (the EPA recommends 1 to 3 years), according to FDEP, only about 100,000 septic tanks in Florida are pumped out each year. That means more than 2 million septic tanks have not been pumped out within the past 5 years. According to testimony given in Florida Legislative hearings, many have not been pumped out in 20 years or more.

In 2010, the Florida Legislature passed a law requiring septic tanks be inspected at least once every 5 years. Two years later, with Rick Scott in the governor’s office, the Florida Legislature repealed the law.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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